Ian Fleming’s James Bond series began its descent with Thunderball, and never regained traction, or ever threatened to reclaim its former glory, despite fleeing glimpses of ingenuity in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and a couple of hair-raising scenes in You Only Live Twice. At this point, both the author, and his famous protagonist seem to be running on fumes. The Man With the Golden Gun — Fleming’s final Bond novel — epitomises the disappointing turn the series had taken, with a weak villain, insipid premise, and altogether un-thrilling prose. But in this case it’s hard to point the blame squarely at Fleming, who died before he could properly edit the novel. Perhaps it was salvageable. We’ll never know. Unfortunately what we’re left with is a half-baked 007 caper, which never takes advantage of its monumental opening chapter.
When we last saw Bond, he had been posted missing, presumed dead, after events in Japan (detailed in You Only Live Twice). But at the beginning of The Man With the Golden Gun, Bond is back in London, via the Soviet Union, where he has been brainwashed, and tasked with the assassination of M, the head of the Secret Service. Allowed access to M’s inner sanctum, Bond’s attempt to kill M is unfortunately — (for the sake of the plot, I wasn’t rallying for M’s demise, I swear!) — foiled inside the first couple of chapters, and his rehabilitation almost entirely skipped over in order to transition the book’s focus to his mission to find and kill Francisco Scaramanga, an American trigger-man known as “The Man with the Golden Gun,” who is facilitating a meeting in Jamaica with a bunch of notorious gangsters.
Had Fleming chosen to focus on Bond’s brainwashing and rehabilitation — perhaps then re-targeting Bond at the men who poisoned his mind — this novel might’ve been something special, at the very least, a very different kind of 007 thriller. After all, Fleming was no stranger to changing his formula; the less-than-spectacular The Spy Who Loved Me being a key example. But what we’re left with his a very uninspired, by-the-numbers James Bond thriller. It’s tired, it’s stale, and its only saving grace is the climatic battle between 007 and Scaramanga, which isn’t enough to elevate it above middling.
The Man with the Golden Gun is a disappointing end to a series that hit its high points early and never re-attained its glory. But nothing will ever take away from the brilliance of Casino Royale, Goldfinger, Moonraker and the pinnacle, From Russia With Love.